MUCH has been made, and rightly so, of the Latin American left’s resurrection since the turn of the century. Which is why the resounding electoral defeat suffered last week in Venezuela by arguably the most well-known leftist current in the continent — what is known as Chavism — demands serious interrogation.
An opposition united only by its desire to overturn the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ originally spearheaded by late president Hugo Chavez won two-thirds of the seats in parliament in the polls held on Dec 6, the first defeat for the ruling United Socialist Party since Chavez came to power in 1999. The setback is significant, but it is important to bear in mind that Venezuela’s is a presidential form of government so executive authority continues to lie with the ‘Chavistas’, and specifically the man who took power after Chavez died in 2013, Nicolas Maduro.
It might not be the best analogy but Venezuela’s politics will now be characterised by a dichotomy similar to that which exists in the US where a Democratic president regularly squares off against a Republican-controlled Congress. That having been said, political conflict in Washington pales in comparison to what has persisted in Venezuela in recent times — the electoral reverse will intensify what is already a heavily polarised political climate.
The first explanation for the setback is the most obvious one – Maduro is not Chavez. While I think it is misleading to exaggerate the roles that individuals play in fomenting political transformation, the successes of the Latin American left, both of the current variety and in previous eras, have always featured charismatic leadership. Think Arbenz, Castro, Guevara and Allende. Chavez was of the same mould. After his death, some of the lustre of the Bolivarian Revolution was inevitably bound to wear off.
A genuine alternative to capitalism is needed.
More important, however, is the fact that the gains of the Chavez era — which include but are not limited to free education, housing and health for every citizen—– have given way to food shortages, rising inflation, and an upsurge in violent crime. Chavism’s success was based on the redirection of export earnings from oil away from the traditional elite and towards the basic needs of working people. The downturn in the price of oil on the global market has badly affected the regime’s economic calculus.
Which raises the question: to what extent has the current incarnation of the Latin American left actually constructed a new and viable socialist path of development? If Chavism is reliant on oil revenues, just like the Evo Morales-led regime in Bolivia is reliant on the export of natural gas and minerals, the suggestion is that a leftist government in this day and age can do little more than give capitalism a more human face — and that too if one has adequate endowments of natural resources.
It would of course be unfair to reduce everything that has happened in Latin America over the past decade and a half to a mere redirection of export earnings. The fact that ordinary Venezuelans, Bolivians, Ecuadorians and so on are conscious of the need to build an alternative to capitalism speaks volumes for the depth of political movements that have collectively been described as the ‘pink tide’.
In some ways the Venezuelan election can be thought of as the masses reminding their leadership that there is a need to do much more than has been done to date. My sense is that the beneficiaries of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ are very clear that a parliamentary victory for the opposition is not tantamount to ending Chavism, and therefore some have opted to vote against the ruling party in the hope that the latter rectify its mistakes so that the revolutionary process can move forward.
And this is the crux of the matter — the Latin American left, or for that matter the left in any part of the world, can thrive only by working towards a genuine alternative to capitalism, rather than simply warding off the more odious effects of the current phase of neo-liberal globalisation.
Certainly this is easier said than done in a world where room to manoeuvre is limited, but what Chavism has illustrated is that a socialism of the 21st century must be based on a conscious and mobilised mass of working people.
If ordinary people feel that the socialist project is theirs to build and protect, a daunting global environment can be coped with. If, on the other hand, socialism is thought of as a gift to a passive oppressed majority by a great leader, however charismatic, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end.
Venezuela’s internal political war confirms that class conflict is as acute as ever. We only become aware of it when someone waving a red flag confronts the powers-that-be. That’s what the pink tide has done, and one electoral setback does not signal its defeat.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2015